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A letter to the editor from Dr. Ramona Lowe

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To the Editor:

The recent article and editorial on the ELA curriculum struck a chord with me, and I felt compelled to answer. You see, I am an “old” English teacher—trained in the old-school methods by my own teachers (who were themselves trained in the 1950s). I attended public schools in the 1970s and began my teaching in the 1980s. I earned my first degree in 1981, the last in 2012. I’ve worked with college-bound readers and seniors who read on a fourth-grade level. I’ve spent my entire career studying English and the pedagogy of ELA. I’ve been involved at the local, state, and national levels on the development of both the standards movement and the era of high-stakes testing, and I watched them change the English classroom through four decades. I’ve taught secondary students, pre-service teachers at the university level, and practicing teachers. In short, I “know whereof I speak,” and you will recognize this paragraph as my appeal to ethos.

Your coverage implied strongly that SSR—Sustained Silent Reading, also known as Independent Reading—was not a part of a “rigorous” curriculum that prepares students for college. I’d like to offer the opposite idea: a solid SSR program is absolutely essential for preparation for college. There is plenty of substantial research supporting SSR that I would be happy to provide, including Marzano’s excellent arguments on why SSR should be the primary ELA component in grades 4-10, but, for now, consider these three areas.

* A solid SSR program across the years provides students with the time they need to practice at their reading levels.Why is this important? It takes roughly 60 hours of reading to advance to the next level, say from fourth grade to fifth grade level. This practice has to be at a level where the reader has proficiency: telling a student who reads several years below level to read The Scarlet Letter is not going to help him grow as a reader. He needs to read where he is and learn to read quickly and efficiently. The texts should gradually grow in depth and complexity throughout the course and years. In a non-AP course, reading levels  in a class will vary widely, from elementary levels to post-graduate levels. Difficult text needs to be structured to assist the reader, and frankly, doing that for a novel like The Scarlet Letter would take an inordinate amount of time—it’s not justifiable. High school students who read below grade level—often years below—frequently don’t have any underlying cause for that deficiency except lack of reading practice over the years.
* A solid SSR program develops schema—background knowledge—that builds both cultural competency and the ability to understand references and allusions in other texts. According to futurists, the rate of knowledge is doubling every 12 months. And yet, the number of our school days remains set. In the humanities (science can make their own arguments), how much is left out because we don’t have the days to dedicate? We will never get all the days we need to truly cover our topic. There is just too much of it. All teachers must make decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out. SSR helps fill in those spaces, according to the interests/needs of the student. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is frequently assigned as a whole class novel. An interesting book, well-written for sure, but problematic in its depiction of race, especially in 2018. But if students were self-selecting books on the topics presented in that book for their SSR time, what a richer experience for both the student and our class discussion! TKM paired with the excellent The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kelly, or the nonfiction Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates as independent choices provide a much richer student experience. That’s what I mean by a “solid” SSR experience. A solid SSR program does not replace whole-class texts and works of great literature; it stands alongside them.
* A solid SSR program demands that students read and complete books. The time in class is “seed” time—it’s dedicated time that yields more time later on, and it’s the time for the teacher to observe student reading (which tells a lot!) and confer with students individually. It also is a time for teachers to share books through book talks and for students to see/hear what others are reading. A recommendation from a friend is often the pathway to a really good book, right? But it’s the reading time out of class to finish those books that really helps with the college prep. Many students wash out of college because they can’t read independently—either the amount or the content or both. (“Have a great evening and read the first 500 pages of Tom Jones for tomorrow,” said my English prof as we headed out the door. True story.) Those skills are built in a solid SSR program.

There are many more reasons, but I hope you will see the thinking behind the inclusion of a solid SSR program at the high school level. You’ll notice how often I used the word “solid” to describe an SSR program. There are hundreds of ways to conduct an SSR program, and, sadly, many of those run contrary to the true goals for SSR. SSR is not a time for teachers to grade papers or do attendance/email. SSR is not a time that is a free for all with no accountability. SSR is not for “when we have time” or for students “after they finish work.” What makes the difference between the kind of SSR program that I advocate and these other weak imitations is a strong teacher. SSR does not result in quizzes, tests, or projects (though the knowledge gained can certainly influence student work). I’ve given many presentations over the years to teachers on why and how to run SSR programs, and some teachers are enthusiastic and embrace the program/goals, and others not so much. I have my own theories about that, but let me state that the teacher has to work hard to make an SSR program successful. It requires a deep knowledge of books outside the canon (especially contemporary titles), an understanding of reading (that, lamentably, does not come with English teacher training), and great organizational skills. Being a successful teacher of any content is hard work; for an English teacher to add a solid SSR component to the course is harder work still. And yet, as a teacher, I found it was the most important and most rewarding part of the job. I often tell teachers the most important book a student reads in our classes is the first one after they leave our class. If that doesn’t happen, no matter what grade or test score or list of accomplishments our students achieved, we fail as English teachers.

Ramona Lowe, Ph.D
Online English III and English IV
LISD Virtual Academy
housed at Marcus High School
5707 Morriss Rd.
Flower Mound, TX 75028
972.350.1810 office
214.770.9880 cell

The most important thing in a book is the meaning that it has for you. —W. Somerset Maugham

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1 Comment

One Response to “A letter to the editor from Dr. Ramona Lowe”

  1. Gail Stewart on February 26th, 2018 1:29 pm

    Dr. Lowe,

    Thank you for a solid, research-based response about the importance of an SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) program in English classes. I’ve seen the benefits of an SSR program in my English classes for many years!

    All the best,
    Dr. Gail Stewart

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A letter to the editor from Dr. Ramona Lowe